Michael Shermer on moral philosophy, second round

nonsense on stilts fishSkeptic Michael Shermer recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” I found it a confused piece on moral philosophy, and since I agree with my friend Spider-Man, that with great power comes great responsibility, I was troubled by Michel’s failure toward the broad public of that august magazine. So I wrote a rather snarky response. Shermer has in turn keyboarded a reply to me, entitled “Moral philosophy and its discontents,” which he published on his own Skeptic online. This is my counter-response, and will be the last thing I will say on the topic for a while, as my experience is that going beyond two rounds in these cases quickly leads to diminishing returns. Of course, Michael is free to write a third piece, if he wishes.

To begin with, I’m going to tone down the rhetoric and focus on the substance, first because it is the right thing to do, and second because otherwise we get into an escalation of hyperboles that doesn’t really help thoughtful discourse (in his second article, for instance, Shermer says that I have become “nearly apoplectic” at his suggestion that witch hunting and the Holocaust were the result of utilitarianism. I assure you, it was a slight exaggeration.). I’ve been guilty of this even in the recent past (mea culpa), so let’s see if I can manage to do better.

I am not the only professional philosopher that has strongly criticized Michael for his original SciAm article. Another good example is Justin Weinberg, of the University of South Carolina (and editor of the Daily Nous), who, among other things, tweeted: “Disappointing that @sciam is contributing to our era’s ever-frequent disrespect of expertise by publishing this ill-informed & confused @michaelshermer column on moral philosophy.” It is not a simplistic argument from authority to point out that when professionals in a field unequivocally say you got things wrong it is wise to seriously consider that you might, indeed, have done so.

On his part, Shermer chides me for not having read a paper by G. Kahane et al. entitled “Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology,” published recently in Psychological Review. Well, guilty of being honest and telling when I have or have not read something. Still, my post was not a critique of Kahane et al.’s paper, but of Michael’s commentary (which, despite his protestations to the contrary, touches only marginally on the paper in question). I have now read Kahane et al., and I still think Shermer is wrong. More on this, of course, in a moment.

In my critique, I said that Michael has taken a very simplistic view of utilitarianism (a philosophy, incidentally, that I do not endorse). He rebutted that one of the examples I labelled as simplistic comes straight out of the Kahane et al. paper. The example in question is meant to measure one’s utilitarian tendencies, and it is formulated as a question: “Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry?” It does indeed come from the paper, but that’s a negative reflection on the paper, not on my point. No serious utilitarian after J.S. Mill would answer yes to that sort of question, so it is hard to say in what sense this would be helpful to measure one’s utilitarian tendencies.

In response to an admittedly sarcastic comment I made, Shermer states that he knows the difference between act and rule utilitarianism, and moreover that he is not naive about moral philosophy, since he has taken two undergraduate courses on the subject (one in general philosophy, the other one in ethics). He has also read a lot of books by Dan Dennett (not a moral philosopher), and gone through several Teaching Company’s Great Courses in philosophy. After all of which, he felt competent enough to write two books on the subject (The Science of Good and Evil and The Moral Arc), and to teach an undergraduate course at Chapman University. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Michael’s background is sufficient to invalidate my original observation, but I will note that bringing in the difference between act and rule utilitarianism would have cleared a lot of muddled points in the SciAm article. He didn’t do it.

In my response, I stated unequivocally that Shermer is wrong when he says that trolley problems are an example of utilitarian thinking. And I stand by that statement, see my previous post for relevant links. Here too, Michael’s defense is “Kahane et al. did it,” which of course at best just means that Kahane et al. might have gotten something wrong, and that Shermer failed to correct it. But in fact they did not get it wrong. They say the following, for instance: “researchers have tried to uncover the psychological and even neural underpinnings of the dispute between utilitarians and their opponents — such as defenders of deontological, rights-based views of the kind associated with Immanuel Kant.” Exactly, so trolley dilemmas are used in cognitive science to explore both utilitarian and deontological thinking, and are therefore not an example of the former. Moreover, trolley dilemmas were introduced by moral philosopher Philippa Foot to highlight the limitations of both utilitarian and deontological thinking (in favor of the third way, virtue ethics), and they are still usually discussed in that context in intro philosophy courses. So, yes, Michael is still wrong here.

It gets worse. Shermer writes: “one might argue that trolley dilemmas represent only one form of utilitarianism (sacrificial) … but it is inaccurate to simply assert that trolley problems have nothing to do with utilitarianism.” To begin with, I never claimed that trolley dilemmas have “nothing to do” with utilitarianism. Never. Second, there is no such thing as sacrificial utilitarianism. Look it up, it’s just not a term in moral philosophy. What Michael means is utilitarian thinking applied to sacrificial problems. Not the same thing.

We now get to the part that nearly caused me an apoplectic attack, allegedly, when Shermer stated (in the first article) that witch hunts and genocides like the Holocaust or the one in Rwanda were caused by utilitarian thinking. In his response, Michael quotes himself from The Moral Arc: “It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you — and everyone around you including ecclesiastical and political authorities — truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is a moral duty. … Medieval witch-burners torched women primarily out of a utilitarian calculus — better to kill the few to save the many. Other motives were present as well, of course, including scapegoating, the settling of personal scores, revenge against enemies, property confiscation, the elimination of marginalized and powerless people, and misogyny and gender politics. But these were secondary incentives grafted on to a system already in place that was based on a faulty understanding of causality.”

Two points here. First off, Shermer is in full speculatory mode here. We simply have no idea how to interpret and weigh the various motives of medieval witch-burners. All factors listed by Michael (and probably more) may have played a role, but anyone who assuredly claims that “this” was the major cause while the others were secondary is pulling one out of thin air. There simply is little empirical evidence to bear on this sort of claims. Second, what I begin to suspect is going on here is a fallacy of equivocation (which will reappear below, when we get to the issue of natural rights). Shermer knows very well that medieval witch-burners could not possibly have deployed Bentham’s or Mill’s philosophy, which had yet to be invented, so he uses the word “utilitarian” in a vaguer, broader sense, which then allows him to implicate the philosophy. Nice try, but this is sophistry, not good reasoning. (I said I wasn’t going to get snarky, not that I wouldn’t be critical.)

Indeed, Michael seems aware of this: “here let me clarify to anyone who thinks I can’t even get my centuries straight that I’m not arguing Torquemada sat down with Pope Sixtus IV to compute the greater good sacrifice of 10,000 Jews in order to save 50,000 Catholics; instead I am aiming to understand the underlying psychological forces behind witch hunts and genocides.” Except you cannot possibly have empirically substantive evidence of the psychological forces underlying the thinking and acting of Torquemada and sixtus IV, so why engage in this sort of psycho-historical speculation? It is just as likely, possibly even more, that Sixtus IV would have killed ten times more Jews in order to save ten times fewer Christians, since Jews and Christians, for him, were simply not comparable in moral value. Good skepticism is about empirical evidence, so why don’t we stick to that?

Shermer continues with another lengthy citation from The Moral Arc: “As in the limbic system with it’s neural networks for emotions, approach-avoidance moral conflicts have neural circuitry called the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) that drive an organism forward or back, as in the case of the rat vacillating between approaching and avoiding the goal region. … These activation and inhibition systems can be measured in experimental settings in which subjects are presented with different scenarios in which they then offer their moral judgment (giving money to a homeless person as prescriptive vs. wearing a sexually suggestive dress to a funeral as proscriptive).”

This is very nice, interesting, even, but utterly irrelevant. Of course animal and human thoughts and actions have specific neural underpinnings. How else would we think or act? But, quite obviously, different people balance the outputs of their BAS and BIS differently, and they end up thinking and acting differently. Some of these differences (though certainly not all of them) may be the result of philosophical reflection on why one should act one way rather than another. And this discussion is about moral philosophy, not neuroscience. As I pointed out in my original review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which appeared, partly censored, in e-Skeptic), we may as well discuss the validity of a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by doing an fMRI scan of the brain of a mathematician. Interesting, no doubt. But also entirely unhelpful to the question at hand.

Michael briefly touches on my criticism of his treatment of Kant, where I brought up a technical paper by Helga Varden on the famous problem of lying to the Nazi. He says: “There is much more to her analysis of Kant, but it seems to me that in this example lying to Nazis is both a utilitarian/consequentialist decision because it would result in the death of an innocent, and a rule/rights decision that qualifies why we should care about the innocent in the first place: because, say, Kant’s rule about never treating people as an ends to a mean but as an ends in and of themselves, or that all people have a right to their own life.” This is very muddled. First off, lying to the Nazi would save the life of an innocent, not result in his death. Second, one can make that decision within a utilitarian framework, but also within a deontological one (Kant’s deontological system is not the only one on the market, so to speak). Third, Kant did not say that we should not treat other people as a means to an end (not the other way around!), he said we should never treat other people solely as means to an end. Without that qualification, we couldn’t go to a restaurant and be served by a waiter, because that would be using a human being as a means (waiter) to an end (getting my meal). The additional “solely” says that we can do that, but always while keeping in mind that we are interacting with a human being, not a machine. Fourth, nobody believes that all people have an unqualified right to their life. If instead of the Jew my basement hid a mass murderer (not because I’m protecting him, but under threat to my life) then I would certainly give him away to the authorities, even if that should result in his death. That’s the thing about good moral philosophy: it’s complicated, and requires precise nuanced thinking. And that is why we have professionals devoted to it.

Finally we come to the topic that most railed Shermer’s supporters on Twitter: natural rights. He ended his SciAm column with an endorsement of the concept, and I responded that on that topic I was with Jeremy Bentham (the founder of utilitarianism): the notion of natural rights is “nonsense on stilts.”

This is a complex topic, with a long history in philosophy, and despite Bentham’s flippant response, there have been serious defenders of it throughout the centuries. The notion of natural rights is related to, but is not the same as, the notion of natural law. Scholars trace the idea back to Plato and Aristotle, but it is far from clear that either one of them meant anything like the modern version deployed by thinkers from John Locke and Thomas Paine to Robert Nozick. I have a separate essay on natural law on my Stoic blog, since it is pertinent to that philosophy, but here let me simply reiterate my basic point: I don’t think there is any defensible notion of natural rights (as distinct from rights as human constructs) that is not hopelessly entangled with what I think are antiquated or indefensible notions of Platonism (as in Plato), teleology (as in Aristotle), or theology (as in Thomas Aquinas). You may disagree, of course, but then you owe us a defense of Platonism, teleology, or theology.

One counter to my criticism I have run across a lot on Twitter during my debate with Michael in the past few days is that human beings are part of nature, so obviously there are natural rights. QED. Well, no. This, again, threads on an equivocation. Yes, as a biologist I certainly agree that humanity is just as natural as anything else in the universe. But in the context of this sort of discussion the distinction has always (since Aristotle!) being very clear: natural rights refers to something that is mind-independent but can be discovered by human beings capable of reason; so-called positive rights, by contrast, are the result of human agreements. True, in a sense, positive rights are also “natural,” but it just doesn’t help to talk that way, it muddles a perfectly clear distinction.

This, incidentally, is an area where there is more agreement between Shermer and myself that may at first glance appear. More, but nowhere near total. Before I get to his rebuttal, let me state briefly what my position is. “Rights” are a human construct, the result of agreeing among ourselves, on the basis of moral and political considerations, that certain things qualify as rights and others don’t. The best sort of evidence that rights are of this kind is the complete disagreement among supporters of natural rights on the number and content of these alleged rights. We go from just one right (Richard Cumberland: benevolence toward all rational creatures), to three rights (Locke: life, liberty, and property — this is the one Michael wants, qua libertarian), to a whopping 19 natural laws from which one can derive corresponding rights (Hobbes, in chapters 14 and 15 of Leviathan).

That said, I do agree that rights are not entirely arbitrary, as they are linked to human nature, just like all moral philosophy is (Skye Cleary and I have recently argued this in Aeon). This puts me somewhere in the middle between moral anti-realists, who think that there is no such thing as a moral truth, and moral realists, who think that there is. I am a moral quasi-realist, meaning that for me morality is an evolving set of ideas that strives to regulate social interactions in order to allow people to flourish qua members of a social group. The reason I don’t think — contra both Shermer and Harris — that science can give us answers to moral questions is because I think facts about human nature under-determine moral systems. That is, given human nature as it is, there are several different, possibly incompatible, ways to develop moral codes. The choice among moral philosophies, then, is informed by facts about human nature, but not determined by it. To ask whether, say, utilitarianism or deontology or virtue ethics are “true” is to commit a category mistake. These are frameworks to think about social life. They may be more or less useful and more or less coherent, but not true or false (and hence not falsifiable or verifiable scientifically).

Okay, now back to the last chunk of Michael’s response. He thinks I contradict myself when I say that we all prefer to be alive rather than dead. I don’t see how that follows. Mine is just a statement of a natural desire. One has to do philosophical work to go from there to a right, especially a right that is somehow inalienable. (I also desire gelato, but that does not imply that I have a right to it.) I do think the is/ought gap can be filled, but not by simply stating that what is natural is ipso facto good. That, as Shermer knows, is yet another informal fallacy, the appeal to nature. And it is easily countered by endless examples (aggression and war are natural for human beings, it doesn’t follow that aggression and war are good).

Shermer takes a lot of liberties with evolutionary biology (another field in which I honestly question his qualifications): “Any organism subject to natural selection — which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well — will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish.” No, there is no natural selective imperative to flourish, especially if flourishing entails things like owning private property. Indeed, strictly speaking there is no natural imperative to survive either: survival is useful, from the standpoint of natural selection, only if it leads to reproduction. Sure enough, often selection favors short life spans, or rather nasty (i.e., non flourishing) lives, so long as the reproductive imperative is satisfied. And, again, just because natural selection favors individuals who reproduce, it certainly doesn’t make non reproducing immoral, does it? One of the few times I agreed with Steven Pinker (often quoted by Shermer) is when he wrote, I believe in The Language Instinct, that he made a decision early on in his life not to have children, but to devote his life to research, teaching, friends, and other good things. He commented (I quote from memory, since I no longer have a copy of that book): “and if my genes don’t like it, they can go and jump into the lake.” Indeed.

So when Michael says “I argue, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my moral starting point, and it is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature — principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world,” he is confusing different things, or at the very least drawing a direct connection between (certain aspects of) human nature and morality. This can’t be done, one needs empirically informed philosophical work to bridge the is/ought gap, not just brute facts.

He says other things that are clearly incorrect from a biological standpoint, like “The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics — a fundamental unit of nature.” No, as plenty of biological organisms are colonial (corals, some jellyfish), or their individuality is temporary (when it’s time to reproduce, as in slime molds), or don’t have clear boundaries at all (several species of trees and mushrooms), or are a complex ensemble of multiple organisms that only appear to be one (human beings, see the concept of holobionts).

Shermer approvingly quotes Pinker: “Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.” Yes, as the Stoics had already figured out 23 centuries ago, we are born with a rudimentary sense of pro-social behavior, which we share with other primates. And yes, morality is the result of building on that innate sense by way of reasoning and language (a notion that the Stoics elaborated into their theory of moral development). But we are no forced to one specific set of conclusions, again because there is a relationship of under-determination between facts about human nature and moral frameworks.

Michael counts himself and Pinker as moral realists, and thinks he slam dunks the case with the following rhetorical question: “Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?” Well, first all, history is full of slave holders. People before very recent times thought that slavery was natural and just. Indeed, they derived this conclusion from their understanding of human nature, or the divine ordering of things, or whatever. More importantly, Shermer makes a fundamental mistake here: confusing objectivity with absolute truth.

Consider a simple example. Given the (entirely arbitrary) rules of the game of chess, a number of things about the game are objectively true. Heck, one can even demonstrate mathematical theorems about chess. But these truths are not “universal,” they are contingent on the specific set of rules that constitute the game. They don’t exist “out there,” in any kind of mind independent fashion. And they are, therefore, not inalienable. One can deny them by simply refusing to play the game, or by inventing a different game with even slightly different rules.

Yes, I do believe that slavery is wrong, given my understanding of human nature, which prioritizes individual flourishing and the application of reason to the improvement of pro-sociality. But there are other understandings from which my conclusions do not follow. So I have to argue the point from within whatever moral framework I have chosen (in my case, virtue ethics), I cannot simply and straightforwardly derive it from empirical observations about human behavior. If only it were that simple.

90 thoughts on “Michael Shermer on moral philosophy, second round

  1. Robin Herbert

    I have had a chance to read Shermer’s reply carefully and I am having a lot of trouble believing he can be serious.

    It is patently absurd to suggest that we can derive an objective morality from the fact that our instincts were formed by natural processes.

    So I am going to decide on a course of action because I have certain feelings that increased the probability that certain patterns in molecules predominated over others in an ancient vanished landscape and that is “objective”, “natural” morality?

    That certainly is nonsense on stilts. I am surprised that Shermer can’t see it.

    Were the actions of the Nazis towards the Jews (the perceived outsider) not based on their nature? Is it not in our nature to shun outsiders? Was this not a result of evolution?

    Evolution gifted us the instincts to cooperate with those who would help our genes survive and to struggle against those with whom we are competing, genetically.

    Are my impulses to greed, to lying not in my nature? Was this not something that might have happened through evolution?

    Did we evolve to be egalitarians, or did we evolve to have the strong get their way over the weak, so that the way for the weak to survive was to become essentially slaves to the strong? So do the strong have a “natural” right to use the weak to their own benefit?

    No, any appeal to something being a part of nature or being in our nature fails as a grounding for objective morality. We are a part of nature so anything that anyone ever does – ever – is part of nature. Arbitrarily selecting a rule and sticking to it does not make it “objective”.

    But even if I did decide that the bad stuff like shunning and killing outsiders was not really the “natural” instincts and the good stuff, like cooperation and compassion were really the “natural” instincts, then why should anyone ground their morality in that?

    So I have can make myself considerably richer by hurting a number of people and can get away with it and have determined that the good feeling of being rich outweighs the guilt of hurting people.

    Suppose I decided that the “natural” action would be to forgo the wealth and save the people and the “unnatural” thing would be to get rich. Fine. So now if I go for the riches and let those people suffer, then the thing I have done wrong is that I didn’t do the “natural” thing?

    Liked by 5 people

  2. brodix


    ” We can devote a lot of analysis to figuring out when these emotions are appropriate and when they are not, and develop a lot of competing meta-ethical theories, but the emotions are the foundations from whence all this moral talk springs. Without the emotions, it would all seem bizarrely confused and meaningless. But because most of us share these emotional reactions, it is possible for a virtue ethicist and a utilitarian to understand each other when they talk about morality even though they disagree about what morality is.”

    It seems the alternatives of a meta theory are either deist or emergent. There is either that top down lawgiver, or it is a bottom up process of trial and error.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    The “six moral hats” is interesting. But natural? No more so than the six hats of thinking. And, of course, other people might believe in some sort of six moral hats idea derived from the six hats of thinking, but with different framing and different ‘hat silos” than those Labnut articulates. And, they might put on their hats in different order, depending on the ethical issue at hand. I know I don’t think every ethical issue warrants the same approach.


  4. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    What if the rule is “Save the lives of innocents”?

    Then that’s fine. But if you only obey the rule except when you don’t like the consequences, that’s not very Kantian. The rule we’re considering is Kant’s rule against lying, though.

    After all the psychopath who tortures people for his own pleasure is a consequentialist.

    Not really. I think you’re taking an overly broad interpretation of consequentialism. Consequentialism is usually constrained to refer to consequences such as “the greatest good” rather than “my personal pleasure”. We went through this with Alan recently — pretty much anything can be framed as a consequence, so if consequentialism is to mean anything we must be talking about a certain type of consequence.

    I often think that these are all just different ways of saying the same thing.

    I have some sympathy with that, but I think you’re missing out that the different frameworks have different emphases and analyse problems a little differently as a result.

    Consequentialism analyses things from the point of view of what consequences will arise, with a view to promoting general happiness or well-being for as many as possible, often regardless of who they are.

    Virtue ethics analyses things from how they reflect on personal character, with a view to being as virtuous a person as possible. These virtues will broadly tend to promote general happiness and well-being but not necessarily always. For instance loyalty to one’s family or compatriots is often considered virtuous but it can at times conflict with the general well-being (e.g. of strangers or foreigners).

    Deontology — I’d say there’s two (or more?) main flavours. There’s a kind of logical deontology which tries to derive rules from criteria such as logical consistency (as with Kant) and there’s more of a theological deontology which takes rules as handed down from God. The rules are not typically ostensibly derived from analysis of consequences (that’s rule utilitarianism, a variant of consequentialism), and so a strict deontologist will follow her rules no matter how awful the consequences they lead to.

    Natural rights — assumes that people have rights. You could regard it as a species of logical deontology, perhaps, but it’s more rooted in human nature than abstract notions of consistency or logic.

    I totally agree that you can make a case for translating any of these into the language of any other, but to say they’re all the same thing I think misses out on these differences of emphasis.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ejwinner

    Re-reading chapters 14-16 of Leviathan, I think I see now why I didn’t even remember this as a ‘natural rights’ argument. Hobbes begins with the presumption of the individual human as (essentially) a ‘rational animal with agency,’ and draws from this what we should assume this individual ought to ‘rightly’ to claim as his due (and we’ll say ‘his,’ given Hobbes’ era), ‘all things being equal,’ meaning prior to any restriction externally or internally determined.

    But from the get go, things get a little weird, because such an individual ‘rightly’ has a claim – to everything! And so does every other such individual. Leading of course to a possible state of a ‘war of all against all.’ Well, this wouldn’t do. So the contractarian phase of this thinking is really the application of the reason to the curtailment – or rather self-interested surrender – of this overly expansive right, in order to effect community with other individuals. And this process of curtailment, surrender, exchange follows, not as encouragement of ‘natural right,’ but submission to ‘natural law.’ This remains a bit weird, because Hobbes’ ‘natural law’ is ‘law’ because dictated by reason, it is not, say, some biological law.

    At least that’s how it reads to me. Many of the ‘lawful’ contractual agreements Hobbes asserts are partly remnants from previous ethical/moral thought, and partly common sense. (Obviously, eg., a contract is worthless unless there is a ‘natural’ expectation that all parties will adhere to it.) So one does get a certain sense that Hobbes’ is leading his argument where he wants it to go.

    However, the point is that Hobbes is not the one to go to, if one wants an unproblematic account of ‘natural rights.’ The ‘natural right’ one might assume before the contract is agreed to is not one optimal for human flourishing, even assuming it arises from an inner drive toward flourishing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. brodix

    This seems like a scholarly debate over the qualities of a picture frame, while totally ignoring the picture. Has anyone been following the news lately. Emotion writ large. Attraction/repulsion. The people in charge have no long term concerns, other than remaining in charge, because they did not get to the top by serious consideration of the course of civilization, but simply having the most effective plot to climb to the top, along with a fair amount of luck. Does morality, other than the occasional pretense, play any part in this?

    As Dan points out, philosophy is relegated to the back rooms of academia for good reason.


  7. Massimo Post author


    “This question is I believe intended to assess how willing you are to be cold-blooded in your willingness to accept enormous instrumental harms.”

    Well, if one wishes to measure people’s adherence to a philosophy, it would seem one would want to be careful about what sort of questions one asks his subjects. I suspect part of the problem with the paper is that they use “utilitarian” in the same broad sense of Shermer, which opens things up to a fallacy of equivocation. Social scientists with little training in philosophy often do that. It is noticeable that all co-authors are in psychology departments, with the exception of Savulescu, who is associated with a center of ethics (I know his work, but that’s a different story).

    “That’s perhaps unfair, in that undertaking to write such a book usually involves a lot of research”

    But I’ve read them, and I can assure you that he is muddled about philosophy, as you would expect given his level of expertise. I pointed that out to him years ago in a live debate with had at the NECSS conference (https://youtu.be/iq_k8LFMvd0), but he persisted nonetheless). I think this is a pervasive problem with “skeptics”: they think their skepticism entitles them to write about everything. Italians have a (derisive) word for it, for which I can find no equivalent in English: “tuttologo,” one who thinks he knows everything.

    “All that is important for Shermer’s point, and all I think he means, is that the usual intuitive analysis most of us have with regard to this specific variation of the trolley problem is to think along utilitarian lines.”

    You say this isn’t a substantive point, but how is it not important to point out that Shermer completely mischaracterizes the point of trolley dilemmas? Seems relevant to me.

    Regarding who’s muddled, Shermer writes:

    “in this example lying to Nazis is both a utilitarian/consequentialist decision because it would result in the death of an innocent”

    What does “it” refer to? The lying? The not lying? I take it it’s the latter, but in standard English you should read it as the former. I’m not saying Shermer doesn’t understand the example, only that he wrote a sentence that his ambiguous and confusing to his readers.

    “He says that the paper you cited excuses lying to the Nazi in this case because it would save the life of an innocent. As such, he argues that this reasoning is not deontological at all but consequentialist. That seems to me a fair point”

    Except that the paper in question does no such thing, which he would know had he read it. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that he hasn’t.

    “I don’t think the caveat you introduce is relevant to this discussion. I would interpret Shermer to mean that Kant said we ought not treat people only as means to an end”

    Given what I have read from Shermer on moral philosophy, I’m not inclined to be so charitable. That “caveat” that you think is nitpicking is crucial, and forgetting about it is a classic undergraduate mistake. Without that qualification the categorical imperative turns into an absurd statement. If one wants to criticize Kant there is plenty of room to do it, but it has to be done right.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Massimo Post author


    now on your defense of labnut:

    “He didn’t say solved, he said resolved. Resolving a moral problem means finding an answer you are happy with”

    If that’s the meaning, fine, but I did not take it that way from the context. Also, “resolved” does not carry the meaning you attribute to labnut’s sentence, but of course only he can clarify.

    “Something has to inform your decision, yes, but it doesn’t have to be a meta-ethical theory.”

    You may not want to call it that, but any time you “resolve” a discrepancy between two ethical frameworks you are doing meta-ethics.

    “all of us, moral realists and anti-realists should be able to agree that morality is fundamentally about emotions such as guilt, self-righteousness, (moral) blame and (moral) praise”

    I beg to differ. Morality begins precisely by leaving all that stuff behind. It’s about using reason to adjudicate differences in human social behaviors. The behaviors have the origins you refer to, not the moral decision making. (When it does, then it isn’t moral decision making, it is emotional stuff dressed as such.)

    “Without the emotions, it would all seem bizarrely confused and meaningless”

    Emotions only make us care about X, they do not tell us whether X is right or not.

    “What Labnut is suggesting is to try out each framework or meta-ethical theory and to subject it to the emotional taste test”

    I reject the very idea that morality is to be subjected to an emotional test.

    “I think this approach makes sense because ultimately our emotional reaction is all we have to go on”

    Again, I beg to differ. You have never experienced a situation in which you guts go one way but your head tells you otherwise, and you have to grudgingly agree with your head?

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Massimo Post author


    “I don’t think there is any logical incompatibility in pulling the lever to divert the trolley, but not wanting to push the man off the bridge. They are both inconsistent with either rule but that does not involve any logical incompatibility”

    That’s the definition of logical incompatibility: rule A is logically incompatible with rule B just in case application of rule A is inconsistent with application of rule B.

    “Both actions are compatible with the rule…”

    So now you have introduced system C, which is itself incompatible with both systems A and B. Fine, you and labnut may prefer C, that does not at all invalidate my point.

    “If a vegan tucks into a BLT then he has done nothing illogical”

    He has acted in a way that is (logically) incompatible with his professed philosophy. So, yes, he has done something illogical in that sense. Of course we all do it, but that’s just because we are usually not logically consistent. Just ask yourself: if challenged, would the vegan attempt to come up with a coherent (with his philosophy) explanation, or would he just say, yeah, today I fucked up?


  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix wrote:

    “Why do you think it is philosophy’s fault…”

    = = =

    The things that are marginalizing philosophy, I think, are basically two:

    –Adopting the disciplinary profile of the sciences and what follows from it; i.e. excessive and narrow specialization; excessive investigation into individual questions; lifeless, deadpan prose.

    –Social Justice orthodoxies that are extreme and alienating and which are being enforced as purity tests within the discipline.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Robin Herbert


    That’s the definition of logical incompatibility: rule A is logically incompatible with rule B just in case application of rule A is inconsistent with application of rule B.

    Again, you are assuming that the person must be applying A or B whereas the person can be applying neither A nor B.

    If the person is following the rule I stated then they have acted with complete consistency with that rule.

    It is like saying that someone is being illogical if they count “2,4,6,8,10,13”. All you can say is that they have not acted consistently with the rule “add 2”. But how do you know they were following that rule?

    He has acted in a way that is (logically) incompatible with his professed philosophy.

    Logic does not say that if you want something today that you won’t want something else more tomorrow. It would have been illogical if he had said “This is a vegan meal”. If he admits that he has fallen off the wagon then it is not illogical.


  12. Massimo Post author


    if someone is applying neither A or B then oviously he is incurring in no logical contradiction. Contradictions are relative to axioms, they are not out there hanging around without context. Yes, obviously if they are acting according to rule C they are consistent. With rule C, that is.

    “Logic does not say that if you want something today that you won’t want something else more tomorrow.”

    That’s right, but I don’t think I argued that human desires are logically coherent.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. brodix


    That is the scientific method, but there is certainly an artistic side of it as well. Emerson and Thoreau come to mind. It is supposed to be part of the humanities, as well.
    Possibly part of the problem is that much of philosophy involves debate and art is not as quantifiable and qualifiable as science. You don’t hear the above two mentioned in the more nit-picky discussions.
    How would you go about rectifying the situation?
    One idea that comes to my mind would be essay contests over what are overlooked issues in philosophy. Obviously there is a lot of politics involved, but it’s not like philosophy doesn’t need a little fresh air.


  14. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo told DM:

    Emotions only make us care about X, they do not tell us whether X is right or not

    Right … this is where people misinterpret Hume on “the passions.”

    Reason has to follow pasions because we don’t do anything, theoretically, without an interest and a drive.

    But Hume did not say that reason gets thrown in the ditch. Rather, it’s suppoed to guide and direct actions based on passions.

    Example from here in the past. Massimo is a semi-vegetarian pescatarian. Dan has said it means nothing to him.

    But, Massimo could still ask for, and DAn still give, advice on how to follow through on that. As could a full-blown vegetarian who emotionally thinks Massimo doesn’t yet go far enough.


  15. Paul Braterman

    Massimo, in UK English we have the word “know-all”; is it absent in US English?

    DK: Some philosophers (eg Massimo; Baggini, Dennett) do write well and clearly. So do some scientists (eg Sean Carroll [both], Coyne, Dawkins). Discussion of unresolved technical matters at the professional level will be densely written and difficult for an outsider to follow whatever the subject matter. The writing skills of many scientists are lamentable, and the same may well be true for many philosophers as well, but if so I am unlikely to have read them. So I don’t think you can blame the low esteem of philosophy in some scientific circles on such things. We can all think of esteemed scientists, some of them effective communicators, who proudly parade their philistinism towards philosophy. I think something interesting is happening there, perhaps a reluctance to admit the existence of one’s baggage, let alone examine it.


  16. Massimo Post author


    yeah, in American English there is know-it all as well, but it doesn’t quite get the sharpness and sarcasm of “tuttologo.”


  17. Daniel Kaufman

    Paul: you may not think so, but I do. As does Susan Haack. In an essay entitled “Can Philosophy Be Saved?” Haack also lamented philosophy’s efforts to ape the sciences as well as its complete abandonment of literary values. A Montaigne or Erasmus couldn’t get published in a professional journal today, and one essay from either would be worth more than a hundred on the “technical matters” you speak of.

    To be clear I wasn’t speaking of the diminished standing of philosophy among scientists but generally.


  18. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: philosophy is not a science so I don’t see the relevance of the scientific method to it. And neither Emerson nor Thoreau could get published on a philosophy journal today.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Robin Herbert


    That’s right, but I don’t think I argued that human desires are logically coherent.

    But you did seem to be saying that it was logically incoherent to act according to the stronger if two conflicting desires, as the vegan does when he eats a BLT.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. brodix


    Since you see a big problem with philosophy adopting scientific practices, how would you go about drawing it back into the Humanities?

    It seems to me its primary focus is applying those scientific habits to the study of the humanities and after dissecting them down to the bone, wondering why there only seems to be a bunch of lifeless literary meat left and why no one else is as impressed by their efforts, as the philosophers are.

    I’m sure a lot is learned, but at what cost and for what reasons? Where is the broader vision philosophy was originally intended to be? Not that there were many true philosopher kings, but the intent was admirable. Now it seems like philosopher mice.


  21. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    Good, fair comments overall. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    You say this isn’t a substantive point, but how is it not important to point out that Shermer completely mischaracterizes the point of trolley dilemmas?

    I say this because I don’t think Shermer cares about what the point of the trolley dilemma was originally — this is not relevant to his point. He’s just using it as an illustrative example of utilitarian thinking in action. I think your issue is with how he expressed himself — he said (I’m paraphrasing) “the trolley problem instantiates utilitarianism”, which you took to be a statement about the point behind the trolley problem. I don’t interpret it that way. I interpret it to mean “I can illustrate utilitarianism by discussing this particular trolley problem”.

    What does “it” refer to?

    Ah, I see what you mean now. Yes, your interpretation of his language is fair, if a tad uncharitable. Seems he was writing in a rush. But I would charitably (and grammatically) interpret “it” to refer neither to lying nor not lying but to the decision itself — a decision which can result in the death of an innocent.

    Also, “resolved” does not carry the meaning you attribute to labnut’s sentence, but of course only he can clarify.

    Fair enough. Labnut?

    You may not want to call it that, but any time you “resolve” a discrepancy between two ethical frameworks you are doing meta-ethics.

    This seems implausible to me. Meta-ethics is a philosophical activity. If you’ve analysed things as far as you can and now you’re going by gut feel I don’t think you’re doing philosophy any more. In particular I wouldn’t say you need a meta-ethical theory, any more than you need a meta-aesthetic theory to decide which colour to paint your bathroom.

    Morality begins precisely by leaving all that stuff behind. It’s about using reason to adjudicate differences in human social behaviors.

    I think I can see where you’re coming from and you’re right to a point. I’m certainly with you that it’s no good to leave moral decisions to the gut alone.

    But I think you’re missing something. You still need an emotional feeling that some things are right and some things are wrong, or else I think we’d be left with might is right and self-interest. I don’t think there’s any way you can talk a rational person who lacks these emotional foundations of morality into caring about right or wrong, or even really understanding what these words even mean. At best all you can do is convince them that they’ll be better off if they play by the rules, but that’s no protection against cases where they feel they can get away with whatever it is they’re tempted to do.

    Emotions only make us care about X, they do not tell us whether X is right or not.

    I thought you would agree with me that there is no truth to the proposition that X is right or not. There is no such thing as objective moral truth. There is only what various meta-ethical theories say, and (assuming each theory seems coherent) the only way we can choose which meta-ethical theory to go along with is by assessing how well it accords with our own moral intuitions or emotions. This is why for instance many people reject utilitarianism — it seems relatively coherent but leads to repugnant conclusions in some cases (Nozick’s utility monster, Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion). These thought experiments don’t show any inconsistency in utilitarianism, they just show that it can lead to results which are deeply morally unappealing.
    As such they only give grounds to reject utilitarianism by appealing to emotions.

    You have never experienced a situation in which you guts go one way but your head tells you otherwise, and you have to grudgingly agree with your head?

    Sure, but I don’t think that’s quite what we’re talking about. In the case you raise, I have a pre-analytical reaction and a post-analytical reaction. In ordinary usage, certainly “going with your gut” would mean going with the pre-analytical reaction and “going with your head” would mean going with the post-analytical reaction. But what Labnut is suggesting (I think) is to use your gut to choose between competing post-analytical reactions. He’s not suggesting you just go with your gut and forgo analysis.


  22. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Socratic,

    But Hume did not say that reason gets thrown in the ditch. Rather, it’s suppoed to guide and direct actions based on passions.

    It seems to me this is exactly what I am saying. I’m saying we should go with our gut to choose between analyses. Nobody is suggesting we throw reason in the ditch. You need reason to produce the analyses. But once the analysis is done, you’re left with your emotional reactions to them.


  23. Massimo Post author


    “Massimo could still ask for, and DAn still give, advice on how to follow through on that. As could a full-blown vegetarian who emotionally thinks Massimo doesn’t yet go far enough”

    I would go a bit further. I was, at one time, not a vetegarian-pescatarian. Then several people made cogent points, i.e., they reasoned with me, and I changed my mind. Moreover, I did it over strenous objections from my passions, at least the passions for octopus and prosciutto. Both octupi and pigs are too smart to suffer or die just for my culinary pleasure.


    “But you did seem to be saying that it was logically incoherent to act according to the stronger if two conflicting desires, as the vegan does when he eats a BLT.”

    I’m sorry my explanations seem so incoherent or obscure to you, but I really don’t think the point is too controversial: theory A says X, which is incompatible with Y, upheld by theory B. So to do Y for someone who subscribes to theory A is incoherent. If theory C says that one can do either X or Y, then C is incompatible with both A and B. The observation that human beings do whatever the hell they want, without bothering about the logical coherence of what they do is an indisputable fact, But it doesn’t make their behavior any more coherent.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. wtc48

    DM: “But if virtue ethics somehow led you to some deeply repugnant conclusion (can’t imagine what that might be, so let’s keep it abstract), would you abandon virtue ethics (at least in that case) or would you bite the bullet and uphold the repugnant conclusion for the sake of consistency?”

    This reminds me strongly of Huck’s moral struggle in Ch. 31 of “Huckleberry Finn” over “doing the right thing” by turning Jim over to his owner, with the difference that the repugnant conclusion comes from deontology, while virtue ethics, apparently, leads to damnation.

    “But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
    It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a- trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
    “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.”

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    I should clarify that if an analysis seems to be shoddy and incoherent but produces an appealing result, I would reject that analysis. The gut is supposed to be evaluating how well the analysis hangs together and how persuasive it is independently of how appealing the resulting conclusion is.


  26. brodix


    “I should clarify that if an analysis seems to be shoddy and incoherent but produces an appealing result,”

    You will never make it in politics.


  27. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo said:

    I would go a bit further. I was, at one time, not a vetegarian-pescatarian. Then several people made cogent points, i.e., they reasoned with me, and I changed my mind. Moreover, I did it over strenous objections from my passions, at least the passions for octopus and prosciutto. Both octupi and pigs are too smart to suffer or die just for my culinary pleasure.

    I, as the master here of talking about subconscious self/selves and multiple selves and in a better way than Dennett, might ask, both straightforwardly and also rhetorically —

    Is it possible that you had a second passion that had not yet surfaced?

    Liked by 1 person

  28. saphsin

    Paul Braterman

    It’s been something I’ve been thinking about, in line with a quote from Mencius “After profound study and the most minute discussion, one may, in recapitulation, expound a matter with brevity.” which seems to be true.

    Now I’m far from one who says that we have no need for technical philosophy that’s not easily accessible to the wider public, or that such work don’t bring in any valuable additional insight. Let me make that perfectly clear.

    But the fact is many of the most discussed works in philosophy in history “are” pretty short (in contrast to several hundreds of pages) and “are” pretty accessible. And it is true that the work of people like Dennett and others are discussed a lot, and you don’t need to be particularly specialized in those subjects to understand. So intuitively, I’m starting to build suspicions of how much of technical philosophy really actually does bring the kind of insight philosophers make it out to be, and whether it’s actually deceptively redundant.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Robin Herbert


    If theory C says that one can do either X or Y, then C is incompatible with both A and B


    And that is exactly why I said that the person following rule C was following NEITHER A NOR B.

    I chose those words advisedly and italicized them.

    Grant me that if someone is NEITHER following rule A NOR following rule B then he can hardly be accused of being illogical if his actions are inconsistent with those rules.


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